The Washington Post recently reported on correspondence raising an issue that members of the U.S. Senate should respect, but probably won’t.
A letter was sent by ecologists and climate scientists and was endorsed by 65 other researchers, including a number of leaders of forest science, and by several scientific societies, and pointed out that pending bipartisan (!) energy legislation includes claims that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral–a claim that is scientifically incorrect.
“Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect,” say the researchers, led by Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We urge you and other members of the Senate to reconsider this well-intentioned legislation and eliminate the misrepresentation that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral.”
The amendment in question was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; it has seven cosponsors and urges leaders of the federal government to act in ways that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”
Shortly after its passage, a press release by Collins hailed the amendment, which, she said, would “help ensure that federal policies for the use of renewable biomass are clear, simple, and reflect the importance of biomass for our energy future.” The release noted the support of groups including the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Wood Council.
The argument for carbon neutrality–which sounds reasonable–is that, although burning trees emit carbon, trees grow back and when they do, they sequester carbon, making the process neutral.
A key problem, say the scientists, is that it takes a long time for trees to grow back after they’re cut down — and a lot can happen in that span of time.
Here’s the real issue: We elect lawmakers to make policy determinations—determinations that inevitably involve tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs may prove to have been unwise, or based upon faulty information, but that’s the nature of the job.
We don’t, however, elect people to legislate scientific fact. (Indiana’s legislature is still the butt of jokes from a century-old effort to change the value of pi.) It may seem like a picky quibble when Congress is doing so much other damage (Yuuge damage), but when lawmakers triumphantly “demonstrate” the falsity of climate change by throwing snowballs in the Senate chambers, it’s important.
There is a difference between language claiming that a policy choice is being made based upon scientific consensus, or upon careful consideration of contending scientific opinions, and language that characterizes a conclusion as scientific “fact” And it’s an important difference.
In an era where presidential candidates routinely make colossally untrue statements, when Indiana’s governor can tamper with an “independent” report in order to reflect more desirable “factual” findings, when Michigan’s governor can tell Flint’s citizens that he can assess water quality, you might argue that the mere existence of a bipartisan bill recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions should be considered a huge win. I get that.
But I think the real lesson is that respecting the distinction between fact and opinion is for that very reason more important than ever.